Lorraine Hansberry Portrait Session

Source: David Attie / Getty

One of the most important voices of the Civil Rights era, Lorraine Hansberry said so much during her much too short lifespan. The Harlem resident died at the age of 34, but in that time, she became the first African-American playwright to have a Broadway show, the dynamite A Raisin In The Sun. The mainstream knows very little about Hansberry, but thanks to PBS, viewers will soon learn about the inner workings of the literary genius.

PBS will feature the life of the icon in Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/ Feeling Heart, airing January 19 as part of its American Masters series. In the film, African-American treasures Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte speak about Hansberry and the massive success of A Raisin In The Sun. Her life story is narrated by family, friends, colleagues, and even Lorraine herself. She was born to a wealthy family in May 1930 in Chicago. Her father was the secretary of Chicago’s NAACP chapter, but despite wealth and status, the Hansberry family was still subjected to racist attacks. In 1950, she moved to New York City at the age of 20 for what she called “an education of another kind.” She wrote for the Freedom newspaper in Harlem alongside Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. The paper was known to provide a space for Black women writers.

At 28 years old, Hansberry became the first Black female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. A Raisin In The Sun broke stereotypes with an ensemble cast featuring Poitier and Ruby Dee, providing an honest look at Black Americans on the stage. The success was groundbreaking, and the show reflected Hansberry’s mantra: “Each piece of our living is a protest.”

The documentary also touches on parts of Hansberry’s life that most viewers may not know. Although she was married to Robert Nimirov for years, she considered herself a “heterosexually married lesbian.” Hansberry wrote essays about lesbianism using the pseudonym “Emily Jones.” Although her sexuality was virtually hidden from the spotlight, Nimirov supported her every step of the way. She died from stomach ulcer complications at 34; her friend Nina Simone was by her side. As longtime friend James Baldwin said of her death, the strain of being a Black writer can kill you.

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart premieres Friday, January 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS. It will stream the following day at Pbs.org/AmericanMasters and via PBS apps. 

This is an event surely not to be missed. Dig into the trailer below.